Dirty Dancing is often dismissed as sentimental silliness in two-four time and, yes, some of it painfully cheesy and quaint. But it dares to declare that young female sexuality exists and can be a force for good and not evil. It is the unheralded feminist anthem of our time. And, sadly, there haven’t been any other mainstream contenders for this title in the 22 years since its release.
Dirty Dancing depicts abortion — not just contemplation of abortion in favor of the staying pregnant at any cost story line that’s the staple of movies today. In 2007 unwanted pregnancy carried to term became a cash crop, with Juno, Waitress and Knocked Up raking it in on this theme. Even Sex and the City, with its claim to bold and honest female sexuality, just couldn’t go all the way.
Not so in 1987, when Dirty Dancing came out. A supporting character, Penny, not only undergoes a horrific illegal abortion, she succinctly shatters the myth (read: stereotype) that women who abort simply hate kids. The there are two kinds of women, mothers and those who abort canard is quickly dispelled as Penny confides her relief that the back-alley ordeal hasn’t left her unable to conceive. Penny embodies what many pro-choice advocates have grown hoarse declaring: most women who abort already have or go on to have kids.
Then there is Baby. Don’t let the name fool you; she’s a heroine we should proudly love to love. She’s smart and ambitious, politically aware and morally grounded. In defiance of movie convention, she takes the sexual lead. Initially awkward, Baby ventures past her safe social circle to see what, or who, the rowdy kids are doing next door. Craving sexual experience, she goes after it. Make no mistake –she’s not husband hunting. She’s on the make for a hot summer fling.
What’s more, there are no recriminations for her sexual awakening — no emotional upheaval, unintended pregnancy, infections or plans derailed. She will still be off to Mount Holyoke in the fall and perhaps on to the Peace Corps after that and, we’re assured, she’s had the time of her life. The film ends with her soaring above the crowd. She is reveling in her pleasure — she has learned and grown confident, not suffered and been made to feel shame.
Despite its requisite bow-tie happy ending, the movie refuses to give over to sentiment. There is no illusion that the leads will stay together, even as unwritten rules dictate this is the way to make cinematic unmarried sex acceptable. This sex is mercifully not premarital because this film knows that first comes love (or perhaps just sex) doesn’t always mean next comes marriage and never mind about the baby in the baby carriage.
Dirty Dancing is a brave and brilliant blockbuster, one rendered more rare and praiseworthy with the passage of time. The intervening years have brought us a pathetic retreat to the Hollywood norm: boy pursues girl as she looks on coyly, sex leads to wedded bliss or dire consequences, girl has baby no matter what, baby transforms girl’s life.
All accounts say that Patrick Swayze battled his cancer bravely, living his last days to their fullest surrounded by family and friends. He lived bravely too. Two decades and two different Bush presidencies ago, he brought us a film that it’s not clear could get made today. A film that told a nation of teenage girls watching rapt that young women want to have sex, sex can be great, and when a woman can’t be a mother in a particular moment it doesn’t mean anything more than just that.
By Anat Shenker, Reproductive Health Reality Check
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